The novel provoked great controversy in the Muslim community for what some Muslims believed were blasphemous references. Rushdie was accused of misusing freedom of speech. As the controversy spread, the import of the book was banned in India and it was burned in demonstrations in the United Kingdom. In mid-February 1989, following a violent riot against the book in Pakistan, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran and a Shi'a Muslim scholar, issued a fatwa calling on all Muslims to kill Rushdie and his publishers, or to point him out to those who can kill him if they cannot themselves. Although the British Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher gave Rushdie round-the-clock police protection, many politicians on both sides were hostile to the author. British Labour MP Keith Vaz led a march through Leicester shortly after he was elected in 1989 calling for the book to be banned, while Conservative MP Norman Tebbit, the party's former chairman, called Rushdie an "outstanding villain" whose "public life has been a record of despicable acts of betrayal of his upbringing, religion, adopted home and nationality".
Meanwhile the Commission for Racial Equality and a liberal think tank, the Policy Studies Institute, held seminars on the Rushdie affair. They did not invite the author Fay Weldon, who spoke out against burning books, but did invite Shabbir Akhtar, a Cambridge philosophy graduate who called for "a negotiated compromise" which "would protect Muslim sensibilities against gratuitous provocation". The journalist and author Andy McSmith wrote at the time "We are witnessing, I fear, the birth of a new and dangerously illiberal "liberal" orthodoxy designed to accommodate Dr Akhtar and his fundamentalist friends."
Journalist Christopher Hitchens staunchly defended Rushdie and urged critics to condemn the violence of the fatwa instead of blaming the novel or the author. Hitchens understood the fatwa to be the opening shot in a cultural war on freedom.
Despite a conciliatory statement by Iran in 1998, and Rushdie's declaration that he would stop living in hiding, the Iranian state news agency reported in 2006 that the fatwa would remain in place permanently since fatwas can only be rescinded by the person who first issued them, and Khomeini had since died.
Violence, assassinations and attempts to harm
With police protection, Rushdie escaped direct physical harm, but others associated with his book have suffered violent attacks. Hitoshi Igarashi, his Japanese translator, was stabbed to death on 11 July 1991. Ettore Capriolo, the Italian translator, was seriously injured in a stabbing in Milan on 3 July 1991. William Nygaard, the publisher in Norway, was shot three times in an attempted assassination in Oslo in October 1993, but survived. Aziz Nesin, the Turkish translator, was the intended target in the events that led to the Sivas massacre on 2 July 1993 in Sivas, Turkey, which resulted in the deaths of thirty-seven people.
In September 2012, Rushdie expressed doubt that The Satanic Verses would be published today because of a climate of "fear and nervousness".